The first notice that I saw about the death of the acclaimed physicist, author of A Brief History Time and pop culture icon Stephen Hawking was a tweeted “Vale” photograph of him alongside another celebrity whose face was unfamiliar to me. And even though the other celebrity was decades younger than Hawking, my initial response was to assume that he was the one whose passing was being mourned because it didn’t occur to me that Stephen Hawking was actually mortal.
Having long outlived the few short years that was forecast for him when he was first diagnosed with motor neurone disease (or ALS, as it is known in the United States), Stephen Hawking seems to have been elevated to the realm of immortality by many others besides me. And he was mourned by disabled people around the world for whom his life served as an illustration that, when provided with the necessary support and aides, their achievements could be unlimited. Hawking himself was a vocal supporter of the NHS and the entitlement of those with similar impairments to his own to receive the same support that had enabled his own dazzling career.
Many of Hawking’s fellow wheelchair-users (note: never describe them as “wheelchair-bound”) were angered, then, by eulogies that described his death as a merciful release.
As Colarado writer and disability activist Karrie Higgins tweeted “You fuckers saying Stephen Hawking is ‘free’ from his wheelchair now: Disabled people are here, reading your tweets. Do you think we ought to die? Cause that’s what you’re saying, actually. Don’t you dare try to sell us death as freedom. Hawking’s wheelchair was freedom.”
There were similarly “f-off” responses to a drawing by Melbourne artist Mitchell Toy, which columnist Rita Panahi posted on Facebook. The drawing showed an empty wheelchair whose former occupant (presumably Hawking) is shown in silhouette standing against a dazzling starlight sky.
It has been shared over 200,000 times by readers who presumably shared Panahi’s opinion that it was a ‘’beautiful tribute”. However, the image was not regarded as “beautiful” by many wheelchair-users who objected to the message that Hawking has somehow transcended the disability which was, by the time of his death, an intricate element of who he was.
In fact, Hawking himself wrote that far from impeding his achievements, his disease had enabled him to bypass the routine administrative duties in order to focus on the work that made him so famous. Certainly, the wheelchair and the synthetic voice were a crucial element of the celebrity status in which he appears to have reveled.
Hawking of course did not elect to have motor neurone disease, any more than the disabled people objecting to the representation of him as having “escaped” his wheelchair with his death volunteered for their own various impediments. I am not myself a wheelchair-user, except for very brief periods in settings like hospitals and airports and I have undergone a series of increasingly aggressive treatments for multiple sclerosis in order to prevent further deterioration of my own physical mobility (currently aided by an elbow crutch). However, I have too many high-achieving, party-animal wheelchair-using friends to regard death as a preferable option to life with a wheelchair.
But this viewpoint is still pushed by TV shows and movies, like Me Before You, which so often depict death as a sad but merciful release from lives of “unbearable suffering”. Disability activists like Silent Witness star Liz Carr and the late, great Stella Young have rallied against similar views in the debate of euthanasia legislation — such as that recently introduced by the Victorian Parliament.
The Victorian legislation is restricted to those who have been diagnosed with a terminal disease, but Hawking illustrates how unpredictable such diagnoses can be. And both his extraordinary achievements and the great pleasure that he seems to have derived from his life and success illustrate that disabled lives are need not lived as unremitting misery and should not be represented as tragedy.